Bitter 498

Nobody attacked, so that was good. Britta stood there, trying not to look scared. Monsters could probably smell fear.

“Smart man, your father,” said N-28.

Britta had all but forgotten Dad was down there, fighting for his virtual life.

“Why? What did he do?”

“You see the totems over there.” N-28 pointed to where the skydiving demons were now harassing newly respawned players, like seagulls pestering people at the beach. “That little totem village was his idea. Instead of people dying and being kicked back to the kobold level, they immediately come right back here.”

“But you’re the ones who made the totems.” It seemed a little like sour grapes to complain about an item they had put in the cash shop. What did they expect? That people would buy them and not use them?

“They weren’t supposed to be used like this. There’s a minimum distance they have to be from combat or they go inactive. Putting them together in close proximity makes them ignore that command for some reason. How he figured it out, I have no idea.”

Britta wasn’t surprised, to be honest. Every time some exploit or hack appeared in a game, the people who made the game were the least likely to know it existed. It was like a universal law of programming. Although, N-28 didn’t seem very upset about it, which was a bit odd. She would put it down to him being a computer program, but she had seen how emotional he could get.

“Can’t you just destroy the totems?” asked Britta. That seemed the easiest way to deal with the problem.

“Oh, I wouldn’t want to do that after all the effort he spent so much money. That would just be churlish.” N-28 smiled. It made Britta suspicious. Something wasn’t quite adding up.

“I don’t think he spent any money. He hates cash shop items. He probably got everyone to use their totems at the same time to troll them.” It was very unlikely Dad would intentionally use a pay-to-win item. He’d rather lose the battle than lose the right to act superior to noobs. “What was that thing you said to the demons before they jumped? Something about a debuff.”

“They aren’t demons. They would be terribly offended if they heard you call them that.”

“What’s the debuff?” Back in beta, dying would lock you out of the game for a full twenty-four hours. They had got rid of that, partly thanks to Britta, but now you lost experience points if you died. Britta had heard nothing about a debuff.

“A minor thing,” said N-28. “All saving throws are set to fail for twenty minutes.”

Britta took a moment to consider this news. Would losing every saving throw make a big difference? She concluded that it would. Massively.

“Not such a big problem if it takes you a while to get back to the fight,” said N-28 gleefully. “More of an issue if you come straight back only a few meters away.”

There was some chuckling and chortling from the gathered crowd. It didn’t help to lighten the mood, though. It was more like murderous chortling and homicidal chuckling.

“So, they all know we’re  a game?” Britta said, taking in the group who were waiting in the wings. It was more like a big show than a war, but then wars were a bit of a production, admired for the spectacle. They had their staging area and well-worked choreography, and men in matching outfits.

“Need to know basis,” said N-28, which didn’t really explain anything.

It had always felt like the NPCs didn’t know they were in a game, and Britta had done her best to not tip them off. Now it seemed like she’d been wasting her time.

“The process is called deep learning,” said N-28, getting professorial. “Simulations can only take you so far. Eventually, both sides will be able to think for themselves in real time, not just the players. Until then, I’ll be lending a hand.”

Britta wasn’t sure what he was going on about, but it seemed like N-28 was here to get things off to a smooth start and would then gradually lessen his involvement. They were here to learn, and he was the training wheels.

On the other hand, he might just have wanted to make sure everyone did as they were supposed to, so they wouldn’t make him look bad. After N-21’s demonstration of his vision of the game, there might be some pressure to make sure the officially approved version didn’t fall flat. This was supposed to be a core mechanic, after all. The heart of the game.

“And nobody knows about the debuff?” Britta hadn’t known about it, but then she didn’t bother listening to tutorials or reading forum posts.

“They have to learn just as we do,” said N-28, a bit pompously, Britta thought.

Britta watched the fighting some more. She didn’t really care who won, but it still felt a bit unfair to not tell the players they were walking around unprotected from all magic.

“You want them to keep coming back so you can keep killing them,” she said, thinking out loud. “Won’t that cost them a lot of XP? Oh, you want to delevel them so it takes longer for them to beat the content.” Britta understood now. Dungeons and raids were one-off events in this game, never to be repeated. They needed to last.

“I want them to improve and get stronger,” said N-28, still pompously.

“But if only a hundred people at a time can do this fight, won’t there be a lot of people waiting around doing nothing? There’s four million players, aren’t there? Not all of them will want to sit around crafting potions.”

N-28 signalled another group of not-demons to go join in the fighting. They looked delighted to do as instructed. “This is the only Korlath Mine, but it isn’t the only place you’ll find a raid zone. Players are spread out in different countries and different worlds.”

“And you control all of the different locations?”

“Of course not. I only control the N Region.”

How many AI were there? A whole alphabet’s worth?

“This is all getting very complicated. I think I preferred it in the ‘don’t need to know’ club. I think I’ll be going now.” She hoped she sounded decisive and confident, and also that they wouldn’t try to eat her on the way out. “One other thing, just so you know, there’s a girl who’s after the guardvark’s babies. If she comes here, you might have to stop her.”

Britta was very happy to pass on the responsibility for childcare to N-28. He could deal with Gabba.

“Players can’t access this area,” said N-28. He’d gone from pompous to dismissive like a seasoned pro.

“I accessed it,” pointed out Britta.

“That’s different. You had help.” He looked over Britta’s head at the guardvark. There was some uncomfortable shuffling from behind Britta.

“She has help, too,” said Britta. “The Alchemist, I think. I’m not sure which one.”

N-28 stiffened, turning away from the battle, eyes locking onto Britta. “Why didn’t you tell me this before?” He signalled the monsters, who moved aside, forming a path to a corner of the cavern shrouded in darkness. And then the darkness stood up.

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